A Perfect day in Gyumri

A Perfect day in Gyumri

What you should see, eat, drink, hear or do if you arrive in Gyumri in the morning and have some spare time until the sun goes down. Carine Aroyan, the coordinator of the “Open Gyumri” initiative and simply a great lover of the city, tells what one can or should do in former Leninakan.

Text : Carine Aroyan

Photo : Arnos Martirosyan, Mher Karapetyan

 

When my American-Armenian colleague first arrived in Gyumri, it was a cold November day. He looked around guiltily and said, “Where’s the culture? Show me the culture“. What can you do if you know that it’s there, but you can’t show it? Everyone must find it for themselves. In this text I’m going to use a lot of expressions like “if you are lucky enough“, “if you succeed“, “if you manage“ because this is Gyumri – at times temporarily unavailable and unnoticed. 

When going there for the first time, you admirably observe reliefs of old buildings, wooden doors, elegantly grown molds and lichens, you eagerly take the photos of the hairdressers in white robes who haven’t put their scissors down since the 70s, then you saunter in the cool halls of “Dzitoghtsonts House” or stroll around the Vardanants square. Or, if you have a long day ahead, you may pass by or through the museums of Mher Mkrtchyan, Shiraz, or Isahakyan, look in through the gate of “Villa Kars” and crawl inside its wonderful yard disturbing the dreamy cats. Then, Mr. Montalto may appear in one of the doors and disappear instantly.

I have heard a lot that even after the second visit some complain, “There’s nothing to do, I get bored.” Yes, that's exactly how it is, don't do anything, get bored! Who said you have to do something all the time? Gyumri will do. You watch. In Gyumri, one sometimes needs to be quiet, get bored and just breathe and look at the horizon in inexhaustible enjoyment.

“Villa Kars” hotel

 

Wandering 

If you arrive by train, or just find yourself near the train station, take your time. Walk in the echoing halls of the building, look up at the center of the ceiling, take a few shots, then look left and right where you’ll find two old frescoes. Enter the slightly dripping underground passage from the backyard and recall the adolescent acnes and loneliness. Schoolchildren are very fond of this area, they wander here, ride their bicycles, talk endlessly, and take pictures.

Walk to the other side of the rails and make sure you go to see the old depot buildings. You can also cross the rails, but be careful; the number of trains has increased. In dusty and peaceful August, it is worthwhile going to all those places where you have never set foot before. Let's head towards these ruins, check that bush, and then get into that half-constructed “ghost” over there. 

The old train depot

 

If you reach “58”, keep walking towards “Gyumri Chalet” – a lifetime work of a family, a guest house, everything. This is a place where you can find the spirit of the old city – a century-old piano, archival dailies, rare photographs of Alexandrapol, chairs with velvet seats, a workshop, Mastiff dogs (Gumprs), and cats of Van.

For me, the center of Gyumri has shifted to Tigran Mets street over the last few years, so I’d like to linger here a little bit. Tigran Mets, the former International Street, connects the railway station with Independence Square, where there’s the building of the former “Chulochni” (hosiery factory), the Academy of Fine Arts, the theater at a distance of 3 minutes’ walk to the left, and the regional administration at three minutes’ walk to the right. One sidewalk of the street is a part of the Kumayri reserve, that is, the historical center, but the architecture here essentially differs from the rest of the streets in the city; the houses are two-storeyed with oriental arches of white and yellow, built in the 1930s. The wide intersection dividing the street into two parts is known as “Zuygaghbyur”. The International street seems rather introvert, as there are not many people there, and even the dubious grandmothers at the small bakeries “don’t sell lavash to individuals” but there are many doors here to be opened boldly.

In the “Arvestanots” studio, for example, artists Mamikon and Karlen Varderesyan live and create together with their two dogs and about... 200 birds.

In “Arvestanots” studio

 

Here you’ll find the only hunting shop in the city, as well as the respected “Perazhkianots”, where it is worth eating at least one hot pastry burning the fingers after having waited for your order for 10 minutes, under the strict gaze of the saleswoman. A few steps away, there’s the recently opened “Gvug” gastro-house serving food and beverages of Shirak, where you can not only enjoy tasty food but also buy delicacies like fresh honey or green cheese for your household. Next to “Gugunts” is the archaic “Vardzuyt” (Rent), where you’ll find worn-out trestle benches, lop-sided Soviet plates, and glasses of vodka both for happy and sad occasions. Also, you are very likely to be treated to a glass of vodka here.

In the same district, if you make an appointment in advance, you will find the only Boeing plane simulator in Armenia and you’ll soar in the virtual sky for one hour at only 5000 AMD. And, if you are fond of air flights, make sure you don’t miss the annual “Fly-fest”.

 

Surb Nshan church

 

One of the car attractions in Gorky Park will be demolished in two years’ time because of its being very old, so try not to miss it. You should also try the wheel for 15 minutes. It’s the most euphoric moment regardless of the weather and the time of day. Gyumri is always beautiful from above, either in sun or in fog; there’s the statue of Mother Armenia on the velvet green-and-yellow wavy hills, the TUMO construction, the half-ruined building of “Varem-Marem” (where the “Tango of Our Childhood” was filmed), the Gorky park, the domes of churches, the red and gray roofs, trees, mountains, and the peaceful buzzing of the city.


 

 

People 

You hear a lot about Gyumri being a city of master blacksmits, but when you arrive here, just like that Armenian-American guy, you wonder where they are.

To really get acquainted with Gyumri, you should find one or rather a few of those who would tell you about Alekpol and Lennagan (as locals call Aleksandrapol and Leninakan), who could take you beyond the nostalgic fog of the black and white photos, beyond the ordinary rails and show you the contemporary city and those Masters temporarily gone underground, whose clangs of hammers you can’t hear with a naked ear. They can take you to houses and backyards, desolate places and ruins...

Everyone in Gyumri talks about phaetons, but you will not see any phaetons unless you are here on some holiday. You might think, “Where are the phaetons? Show me the phaetons”, and one day, while wandering in the backyards of Rustaveli, you might find yourself in the yard of phaeton master Samvel, legendary phaeton master Grish’s grandson.

Gyumri is an endless puzzle and it is multilayered; you first learn through the abstract myths and clichés heard before, then you pass to the people and through those people you start to know the city. People, and especially those who you walk with or go after, play an essential part in solving this puzzle as it’s them who choose which pieces to offer you.

For almost 5 years, both my life and work have been related to this city, but I often realize that I know next to nothing about it. Gyumri was revolutionized for me twice; first, when our teacher (Nazaret Karoyan) took us, the three curators – Lilit, Terez,and me, on a fabulous art trip around the studios, places, houses, and museums in Gyumri, and second – at the “Rock-Fest” 2016. I had a sensation that the sleeping dragons had woken up and were dancing happily. According to my internal clock the doors of Gyumri opened for me and did not close anymore while we were sitting at “Rob’s” that very day and grabbing the fat, lucky red cat from each other’s hands. We locked eyes with Manu for a second and realized that our “Hartak” festival was going to be held in Gyumri next year. 

You will hear some of the young say that during the earthquake Lennagan collapsed – Gyumri remained, but the old watchmaker in the square may shake his head in regret and reminisce the abundance of the “communists’ time”, and then go on fixing the broken watches.

Try to catch the present of today's city, its contrasts, contradictions, the burnt out and the burning, and “the darkest shadow caused by the brightest sun”.

Follow people, be it in real life or on Facebook, see what they live on, who they get photographed with, whose jewelry they wear, and whose toys they buy for their children.

There is diversity here without a dulling multitude, every lecture is an event here, every new cafe is long-awaited. Today’s Gyumretsi is so real that at times I feel myself being in a dream. Those are people who heal the present while holding the past in their minds and don’t believe that one day everything will turn for the better out of the blue. 

They talk less and work ferociously. They interrupt you abruptly when they suspect dishonesty in the “sweet” words you say about Gyumri. In Yerevan, no matter how busy you are, there’ll always be an hour or a half for a coffee – sometimes, several times a day. In Gyumri, even though you’ll be asked “shall we have a coffee?” after every greeting, the thimble-sized coffee cup is a matter of one or two sips – there is no leisure in it.

 

Eating/Drinking

I must say, my recommendations are patchy like my character and are based on my experiences and misadventures full of coincidences.

And so, where to eat? In fact, there are a lot of places. Among the traditional ones are “Dzkan Dzor” and “Poloz Mukuch”, which are the so-called experience places. For example, in “Mukuch” be ready to surrender to fate, because the menu here is conditional (English in Armenian letters) with no price list. There’s the aunty who says, “I’ll bring it right away” and returns with a platter of side dishes, which makes the rest of the order meaningless. And yes, drink draft beer here, it’s part of the ritual.

“Herbs & Honey” is that cozy must-go place, where the most irresistible cakes and fantastic Shirak honey and herbs are. The menu is very healthy and smart, there are detox cocktails, and they sell their own bread. It is the most convenient place for vegetarians in the city.

Here you’ll find “ghaifa”, something like barley coffee. A little below that cool hairdresser’s, at the beginning of Abovyan street, there is “Aregak”, the first inclusive cafe in Armenia. When you look from outside, you want all the bread and croissants on the stand to be yours. It isn’t in vain that Armen Sargsyan always comes to visit the people of “Aregak”.

 

Qyalla

 

The recently opened “Florence” is one of the new fancy places which is also very “Instagrammable” both from the inside and the yard (but the architects complain that they have damaged the historical facade of the building).
The people of Gyumri are fond of the “Hatsatun” tavern. “They make a good tail stew here”, they say. If you are brave enough, come back in winter to eat “qyalla” – an oven-cooked head of a cow.

If you want something pleasant and fast, visit “Ponchik-monchik”, don’t be afraid of the queue, it moves quite fast. The thin and crispy dough is hollow and with little cream in it; you won’t gain weight.

 

Watch 

Prior to coming here, check if there’s a new exhibition in the gallery of the Aslamazyan Sisters (the only gallery of woman artists in Armenia), in the exhibition hall of Hotel Berlin and in “Stil” museum; if there is – it’s fantastic, if there isn’t – go and see anyway.

“Style” graphics museum

 

Whenever I pass by “Berlin Art Hotel,” I always drop in to get me a couple of postcards. The tranquility of the hotel and the art starting right from the threshold is one of these experiences when you walk down the corridor and you know the places of some works by heart, when you look at them like at an old acquaintance of yours and say “hello”, then Gohar Martirosyan’s big and blue ocean-space emerges in front of you, or – Hrach Vardanyan’s canvas that looks like moist soil.

More? There we go; “The Youth House” (Hayordats Tun) and the Merkurov Art School, which is said to be the oldest art school in the South Caucasus. Here you can see pictures and sculptures by children which haven’t perceived yet that they are art in themselves. 

   

 

I tried to persuade them to sell me the picture of the soldier rabbit, but I failed. 

“The space is small here, there isn’t much to do, it’s easy to concentrate and create,” Artush Hayordatsi told me once. Then he added, “It’s best to create in Gyumri and exhibit in Yerevan.”

“Amigo” pub

 

If you’ve already seen a lot and you’re tired and you can’t eat any more and it’s too early to go for a drink, what can I say? go to “DeGar” tattoo studio, get a brutal tattoo and go to “Garage” club (If you are lucky, you’ll listen to the Bambir or to other celestial bodies) or go to “Amigo” – the first and, I guess, the only pub in Gyumri.

“Garage” club

 

“DeGar” tattoo studio

 

See you soon

The road from the square to the station is always windy and dusty in the evening hours. On my way to the bus station, out of the corner of my eye I catch the mannequins with crooked hands and legs, the dolls, the toy donkeys and toy horses, and the rows of rubber shoes, scythes, and construction materials. Meanwhile, I miss the last bus.

Gyumri railway station

 

One step away, every other half a minute, a taxi driver chants monotonously, “E-re-vaa-an… by taxi… Ere-vaa-an… by taxi”. Then, you get into a taxi, say goodbye to the train lines, to the skeletons of factories and combines, and to the desolate suburbs… When you love Gyumri, it’s never that sugary love. Too many times I’ve got furious in Gyumri, too many times I’ve seen the closed and the rejective next to the beautiful and the open-hearted. But every time, the moment I enter the city my breathing gets faster and I become impatient and longing. I know that I will probably not see anything new, and depending on the season of the year I’ll get to the railway station either frozen or hot, I’ll cross the International street, and if I am lucky – I’ll greet Hamlet and Hrach, I’ll feel the sand of the endlessly repaired street inside my shoes, I’ll go to Kirov street and I’ll look at the beautiful red building, where my [future] apartment is still “for sale”, I’ll take pictures of the blossoming trees, and I’ll notice that my favorite cafe has become more perfect, while the hair of the young owner of the cafe has turned whiter. You can’t help it, there are so many problems. But it doesn’t matter, it is at those moments that I strongly want to be here, in Gyumri.

One of the abandoned factories

Related Articles